Tuesday morning was like every other dawn patrol training morning. The air was thick with Southern humidity yet at 5:00 am still the coolest part of the day. I left the house a little later than usual – I wasn’t going to work. It was the day of my dad’s surgery. He had just moved in with me four weeks prior, from Arizona. My mother passed away just three months prior. He was looking to start over, to help me around my house, fixing the things he thought needed fixing. He had spent the last seven or so years taking care of my Alzheimer’s stricken mom and now he was going to take care of me. He brought just a few things with him – mostly some clothes and three plastic boxes of fishing lures. We were going to go fishing off the Carolina coast.
But just days after he arrived, we were back in the hospital. He was short of breath and had no stamina. Turns out, fluid had collected between his chest wall and his lung, a common occurrence after triple by-pass surgery, which he underwent in December. Doctors in the Grand Canyon State didn’t catch it, despite repeated voicing of concern about his persistent cough and wheezing. The fluid had been there so long it was congealing. Surgery was the only option, the only hope of getting back at least some of his pep.
I felt so sorry for him, house-bound in my town home with three cats,a dog, and a frog, and me working two jobs. He’d ask me every night what my schedule was. He missed me during the day and he was always happy when I came home. He would watch me cooking dinner for him, dinners which he dutifully ate every night, even though I am sure he would have rather gone to the Golden Corral.
Chattajack training was well underway, so I’d slip out of the house in the early hours, trying hard not to wake him, feeling a bit guilty for leaving. I don’t know if he really understood why I was getting up at that hour. But he never said anything, never questioned why I might be going out on a lake in the dark. Occasionally he ask me what it was I was doing.
“Paddling. On the stand up board. It’s my workout. I need to do it to stay healthy. Too lose the weight.” And to keep myself healthy so I can help you.
Sometimes when he said that, he sounded just like my mom. And in those moments I saw just how alike they had grown in 65 years of marriage. They didn’t look alike, the way some couples who’ve been together that long sometimes do, but the mannerisms, the inflections, the expressions – they were identical. I wondered who got it from whom? One night, when he was channeling mom, I smiled and told him he sounded just like her. He smiled back.
As I drove up to Barton’s Creek, it looked like I was going to be treated to a gorgeous sunrise. But when I got to the dock, it never really quite delivered. Nonethless, it was a nice morning. It was bright. Glassy. There were herons and osprey. This was Week Three of the Riding Bumps training plan, a rest week. I dialed in my Speedcoach and my Suunto and was precise with the intervals. Heart rate exactly where it needed to be. My form was good. Everything clicked.
Towards the end, I ducked into the little cove near the dock where there’s a large half-submerged sign warning boaters about the low-lying overhead powerlines. It’s perfect for practicing buoy turns. I made one pass around it, walking to the tail of the board and back again.
That’s when it hit me. The crickets were still singing their morning song, the song birds were joining in. I stopped paddling and let the blade drag behind me. It became as heavy as a lead pipe.
Standing on my board, my chest started heaving and I let out a huge gasping sob and dropped to my knees. Fear, panic, dread, all of it came crashing out. I found myself praying out loud. Please don’t take my daddy. Please let him stay, please protect him like you have the four procedures before. I need him. Please. Please. Please.
The ospreys heard me. The herons too. I’m sure God did. But I guess he had other plans.
Normally after intervals I always feel good. Strong. Refreshed. When I got home I started rushing to get everything ready to go to the hospital. Dad was taking his time. He had packed a bag – a bag of things I was sure he really wouldn’t need but he wanted to bring them anyway. We argued a bit. I got short.
“I have some experience with this, you know,” he said, in a good natured way.
“You’re right. You do. Now come on, we have to go.”
Wendy followed us in her car to the hospital. Dad and I didn’t say much but we talked about how the operation would hopefully get him to the point were we could do all those things we’d been talking about. We were both looking forward to that.
In the waiting room, he asked Wendy to get him a North Carolina Driver’s Handbook and a Wildlife Resources Commission fishing regulations handbook so he could study up to get his driver’s and fishing licenses while he was recovering. He had at least a three-day hospital stay ahead of him.
After pre-op, after I kissed him and told him I loved him, we joked with the nurses.
“Ah, I see the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, “ one of them said. Dad just beamed.
They wheeled him off, promising to take good care of him. Just before Wendy and I exited to the waiting room, I turned and looked over my shoulder and caught one last glimpse him, he was still joking with the nurses.
That’s the last time you’ll see your daddy alive.
Lisa! Don’t be such a drama queen. That’s not true. Stupid self talker voice.
The anesthesiologist warned me that his recovery was not going to be easy. She cautioned that the procedure would likely worsen his dementia. The surgery was not 100 percent successful but the surgeon thought it would be enough. As we waited for him to get out of recovery, the reality of the situation hit me. He would likely not be even close to back to the way he was before his by-pass surgery last year. He would likely need more care than I could provide him. I would likely have to get him back into another assisted living arrangement sooner than expected. I knew that would kill him. Deflate him even more than he already was. He just couldn’t understand, why after being healthy all his life, he couldn’t do what he used to be able to do. This was not going to be easy.
We were told to go up to ICU to wait. Dr. Chang pulled us into a private room and explained that his blood pressure was low and a post-op EKG showed problems with his heart. The on-call cardiologist explained that he needed an emergency cardiac cath to see if there was a blockage or if one of the by-pass grafts had failed. They needed to get him to the big heart center at Wake Med, across town.
I could see him just before he was to go.
Wendy and I were sitting in the waiting room. I’d just finished praying with the Moravian hospital chaplain.
“CODE BLUE, CODE BLUE!!!!! ROOM SIX!!!!” People in blue scrubs started running down the hall. Klaxons were blaring.
At first it didn’t register.
Then my stomach lurched. Dad was in room six.
I ran into the hall and nearly collapsed.
“WENDY!! That’s dad!!! That’s his room!!!! GO SEE!!!!”
I leaned up against the wall. Someone in a white coat grabbed my arm.
“Is that your dad’s room?”
“I don’t know. I think so.”
“I’ll go find out.”
She was the case worker.
Wendy came back. They wouldn’t tell her.
“We don’t know, stay in the present, it might not be him. Stay here. Stay present. Breathe.”
I knew differently. I just did.
I can’t do this. Not now. Not my daddy. Not now.
No no no no no.
Suddenly I was back on my board. On my knees. But unsteady. No paddle. Hanging on to the rails, trying to stay upright. Like some of my more tentative sup students who are so afraid of falling.
They worked on him for about 30 minutes. They gently but firmly made me watch so I would understand what was happening. It was their way of telling me, without telling me, that I needed to tell them to stop. That it was in his best interest.
The second time in three months that I had to make that call. In April, it was clear cut. Mom’s hip was broken. She wasn’t eating. She was having conversations with my grandmother and grandfather. A feeding tube was not something she would want. I had to convince my dad of that. Truth was, I’d lost l her to Alzheimer’s long ago. No question she was ready.
But not my dad. He wanted to fix my ceiling fan, he had get a North Carolina driver’s license, and he needed to go fishing.
His body just couldn’t keep up. It had been through too much. The heart couldn’t pump enough. Heavy medication and machines would have to do it for him with no good outcome.
They stopped pumping his chest. Slowly the nurses and doctors cleared the room, all but two. I held his hand, tried to talk to him. I told him I loved him, and that it was okay. My voice was weak. I don’t know if he could hear me over the cacophony of Code Blue.
“Does he have any favorite hymns?” the chaplain asked.
“No. He likes Big Band music.”
Wendy was there. Andy. Young Doctor Chang put his arm around me.
It was as if a Peahi monster broke on top of me.
And I’m still being held under.
And my board is in a million pieces.
I’m writing this at 4:30 in the morning…two days later. Yep. Not sleeping.
Every time I close my eyes to try, I replay that scene over and over. Or I think of the time we went fishing on the reef near Sprecks, I think, and I hooked an eel. We didn’t know how were were going to get it off the line. A couple of kids came running, cut it off the line for us and we let them keep it. Later, I bought him a bumper sticker at Longs that said “Have you Hugged a Moray Eel Lately?” It made him laugh.
Or, just recently, the time he imitated me imitating a tortoise eating lettuce. I think that might have been the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
There was the time, when I was three, when he put on a sheet at Halloween and scared the daylights out of me. Or the time I fell head first into his birthday cake that my mom had worked so hard to make from scratch. Or the time he took me to Knotts Berry Farm for the day, just the two of us. For no reason. Or the time our 27-foot sailboat lost power and he gave me the helm and said, “You can sail her into the slip.” And I did. Or the time when I was a senior in high school, working at the local radio station covering school board meetings, and he gave me a box full of reams of typing bond for Christmas. It was the best gift ever. Because it meant he was paying attention and he knew I was destined to be a journalist. And he approved.
And yes, these memories are wonderful. But they underscore the fact that he’s not here. And that my time with him is over, and that it was a gift, however short-lived, to have been with him these last four weeks.
Doesn’t stop me from wanting more.
I loved my mother. But there is no doubt I was my daddy’s girl.
In so many ways. I looked so much like him when I was little, that school kids who had only seen me with my mom swore I was adopted. That teasing stopped as soon as they saw him. Both of them, though, instilled in me a love for our Mother Ocean. They were both watermen in their own rights. That’s why I was so looking forward to taking my dad to the Chucktown Challenge in Charleston and ultimately to having him there at Hales Bar Marina to see me finish my second Chattajack in October.
Wise people have reminded me that he will now have the best seat in the house. That he will be there on that board with me the whole 32 miles. Maybe so, but it won’t keep me from wishing that he was the one handing me the chocolate milk.
Sometime next Spring, I think it will be time to go home. To take their ashes with me to Haleakala at sunrise and let them waft over the Valley Isle and return to the water that they so loved.
And I think it will be time to do my Maliko run.
And let them both have the best seat in the house.